The forgotten war in Yemen rages on along western shore

Courtesy of United Nations OCHA via Flickr

Due to the worsening conflict and exacerbated environmental problems, 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, which is more than 80 percent of the population. Despite the necessity for aid, donor pledges fell short by $2.15 billion at a UN international donor conference, most likely due to the impact of COVID-19 on nations’ economies. Nevertheless, the decline in humanitarian pledges in past years, specifically from the US and Saudi Arabia, point to a deflecting of personal accountability. Besides this basic ethical violation, such shrinking humanitarian budgets means prolonged suffering or death for the nearly 2.3 million Yemeni children under the age of 5 projected to endure acute malnutrition in 2021.

Conflict rages along the western shore of Yemen, a battle between multiple armed groups dating back to the formation of a Saudi-led and US-backed coalition in March 2015. The cohorts at the forefront are the Houthis, an Iran-backed militant group also referred to as Ansar Allah, and the Saudi-led coalition, who back the internationally recognized government of Yemen with allies which include the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. In terms of arms sales, the United States was the single-most significant contributor to the Saudi forces, selling $64.1 billion worth to Riyadh from 2015 to 2019. This was a stark increase from the $3 billion they sold from 2010-2015. The inflating financial support reflects the U.S. administration’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia on the basis of foreign policy and oil interests. 

Yet under President Joe Biden, some steps have been taken to ease conflict in the region. He called for a halt in support of offensive operations and lifted the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization. But beneath the government and policy affairs between the major powers, the Yemeni people are currently facing the worst imaginable crisis of the 21st century. 

Due to the worsening conflict and exacerbated environmental problems, 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, which is more than 80 percent of the population. Despite the necessity for aid, donor pledges fell short by $2.15 billion at a UN international donor conference, most likely due to the impact of COVID-19 on nations’ economies. Nevertheless, the decline in humanitarian pledges in past years, specifically from the US and Saudi Arabia, point to a deflecting of personal accountability. Besides this basic ethical violation, such shrinking humanitarian budgets means prolonged suffering or death for the nearly 2.3 million Yemeni children under the age of 5 projected to endure acute malnutrition in 2021. A possible solution is to put in place mechanisms requiring involved party governments to contribute obligatory financial or other resources to victims of the conflict. One way or another, the impact of the deals between powerful leaders cannot be dismissed, but rather integrated into the conversation and solutions. Money will not be the sole answer to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, though, because a plague of violence between the Houthis and Saudi-led forces still continues with unabated force. 

The recent Saudi air raids in March 2021 on a port for grains and a food production company reveal the effect of violence on the distribution of supplies. Bombing of food supplies violates agreements made by the warring parties and poses risks to the millions of people facing famine. Beyond this, the Saudi naval blockade on the major port of Hodeidah in Yemen has created obstacles for non-profit organizations on the ground distributing aid. In February of this year,  zero fuel imports came through the Hodeidah port, preventing trucks from giving out food and cutting off energy for hospital generators. But the Saudis are not the only ones to blame for human rights violations. As a matter of fact, the Houthis have been accused of diverting aid and selling it for profit. They also are escalating tensions by expanding territory into the once-safe and oil-rich governorate of Marib and bombing oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. 

Escalating violence in the region does not seem to have an end in sight, despite calls by diplomats and the United Nations for a nationwide ceasefire. People in Western media have seemingly forgotten about the war, despite its reliance on American money and support; most coverage of the ongoing humanitarian crisis is by Al Jazeera and a few British news outlets. What this discrepancy reveals is the failure to focus international attention on aid for the Yemeni people. Positive forces in the region are the frontline workers of this conflict, like Medicins San Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the International Federation of the Red Cross, who risk their lives in the face of alarming attacks targeting medical facilities. However, the scope of their operations is limited due to reduced personnel and surrounding conflict. Rather than searching for innovative solutions in the wake of this tragic situation, the United Nations and governments have repeated the same half-hearted calls for peace to deaf ears of militia fighters prioritizing money, oil and power over human lives, perhaps because these are the same priorities that emerge during higher-level dealings between the involved foreign governments. 

Complex problems, as described, require complex solutions. Yemen faces attacks on all fronts: war, environment and security. A single-minded view focused on the military solution will reap little to no benefits for the people and fail at creating long-term stability for the region. While no practical solution for Yemen may exist in today’s climate, the situation poses a precedent for future crises. Change will be necessary in policy and the execution of policy, specifically for the most powerful governments and organizations; not just for the sake of the Yemeni people, but the looming existential threats to other populations.

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